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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Shook Distraction (1)

This has been done to death over at Why Evolution is True, where I had a bit to say on the extensive thread created by Jerry Coyne, but I think a few last observations are in order. For those who did not follow the trainwreck, John Shook, who is both a Center for Inquiry Senior Fellow and the Center's Director of Education, has a new book coming out in October:  The God Debates: A 21st Century Guide for Atheists, Believers, and Everyone in Between. I just looked this up on Amazon and found that it's from Wiley-Blackwell, so he and I share the same publisher. That's all the more reason to give it a plug. Really, good for Shook for writing this book and for Wiley-Blackwell for publishing it. If things had gone a bit differently, I might be here giving it my strong support, and I'm sure to pick up a copy at some point.

Irrespective of the publisher, the book sounds interesting: as far as I can work out, it attempts to explain and debunk some of the more esoteric Christian claims and arguments, from academically sophisticated theologians as opposed to the more popular kinds of evangelical Christianity that have been among the main targets for, say, Richard Dawkins (though of course, Dawkins and others have also been very interested in traditional Roman Catholicism, and some of the so-called "New Atheists", especially Sam Harris, have been very interested in Islam).

Shook's book may not be everyone's cup of tea. The more rarefied theological positions exercise less influence on public policy than do traditional Vatican-style Catholicism or the various shades of evangelical Protestantism, and of course many people who are critical of religion may be predisposed to think that the rarefied views are not worth refuting unless they include arguments for the existence of God that are stronger than the traditional ones. That may seem unlikely, on its face, or these arguments would be better known and would be wheeled out more frequently by evangelists. After all, people like Dale Stephenson are not idiots ... yet when they put actual arguments to support their faith they tend to come up with variations of the traditional arguments that the New Testament is credible, that God was needed as a First Cause, that the Universe shows an appearance of design, and that God is needed to explain the phenomenon of morality (and how morality can be authoritative). I don't find these arguments at all convincing, but that's not the point. My point at this stage is simply that if the more rarefied theologians have more powerful arguments than these in favour of the existence of God, as God is popularly understood, they are doing a lousy job of marketing them to folks out there in the field of evangelism and popular apologetics. Perhaps it is safe to ignore these other arguments, and if they are unsuccessful then the rest of rarefied theology seems to fall in a hole.

Nonetheless, the book looks interesting and I think it (potentially) has some importance for at least three reasons. First, there actually are some interesting arguments around for the existence of God that have not been relied upon much by evangelists but are given some respect in academic circles. Maybe evangelists avoid them because they seem fishy, or because they are too complicated to explain in popular forums. I'm thinking, for example, of modern forms of the ontological argument and of various kinds of transcendental arguments. I, too, find these arguments rather fishy - but they're out there, so it's at least worth looking at them.

Second, many of the rarefied theologians do not posit anything like the traditional God, let alone try to argue for this being's existence. Rather, they posit other concepts of the divine and/or of the role of religious belief. Some of these concepts may be quite difficult to refute, but they may (or may not) have real-world implications if they do turn out to be true. It's worth getting a better handle on what these positions actually are, what their implications would be, and whether they are at all credible.

Third, much of the contemporary critique of religion is not focused on its truth-claims but on its social benefit or harmfulness. However, a critique of this kind that relates to the position of the Vatican or that of evangelicals or fundamentalists may not touch the more rarefied versions of religion. So it is open to somebody who kind of likes those versions to claim that the critique from someone like Dawkins is at best incomplete: i.e., some kinds of religion are at least not harmful. Indeed, my own view is that the more liberal variants of religion are rather innocuous. Dawkins could respond, plausibly, that this is a relatively minor issue, since so many people believe in more traditional sorts of religion. Still, it would be worth getting a better idea of what the more rarefied theologies actually say and getting into a better position to make an assessment of whether they are socially beneficial, neutral, or harmful.

In all, I think that Shook's new book could well add value to current debates about religion. This is actually the sort of book that I want to see written to supplement the publishing phenomenon of the "New Atheism". If the book addresses the three issues I've raised above, and does so in an authoritative and systematic way, then it will be worth purchasing or at least getting out of the library. Besides, for many of us the ideas that Shook is apparently going to discuss have intrinsic interest. As I said, the book is probably not for everyone, but I'd like to give it a read. Although I'm not all that happy with Shook this week, I'll look at the book on its merits (when I get around to doing so) and if it's great stuff I'll say so. There's no reason why it shouldn't be.

Or so I would have thought if Shook had not written an especially clumsy article in the Huffington Post plugging The God Debates. I think that what I've written above does a better job of selling the book than Shook himself does - so Shook and his estimable publisher can give me a "Yay! for that - though of course I have a much smaller audience here than the Huffington Post gets. Perhaps the controversy created over there will generate sales. But at least I've put a case as to why a book like this may be worthwhile and interesting (though again, not to everybody's taste) without egregiously alienating my allies or creating a political problem for the organisation that employs me. That's a good start. When plugging your book, try to do no unnecessary harm to the people who are on your side.

I don't blame the CFI for the trainwreck that Shook's article caused, though I do believe that the organisation has some structural problems that it needs to work through. In particular, it's difficult (though not by any means impossible if good sense prevails) to operate as both an advocacy organisation and a think tank. I put the blame on Shook himself. It didn't have to happen like this, and with a bit of tact and common sense it would have turned out very differently. I'm going to explain why in a separate post, as this one is getting long already.

4 comments:

Alex SL said...

Indeed, my own view is that the more liberal variants of religion are rather innocuous. Dawkins could respond, plausibly, that this is a relatively minor issue, since so many people believe in more traditional sorts of religion.

More likely, he would respond that liberal religion is harmful because it promotes and celebrates accepting beliefs on blind faith alone - thus producing lots of people lacking critical thinking skills as possible recruits for the more directly harmful forms of religion, pseudoscience and economic scams.

Steve Zara said...

Second, many of the rarefied theologians do not posit anything like the traditional God, let alone try to argue for this being's existence. Rather, they posit other concepts of the divine and/or of the role of religious belief. Some of these concepts may be quite difficult to refute, but they may (or may not) have real-world implications if they do turn out to be true. It's worth getting a better handle on what these positions actually are, what their implications would be, and whether they are at all credible.

I think it's more than just that the concepts may or may not have real-world implications. The fact that theologians publicly argue for the reality of something that they term "God" gives support to religion in general, or at least it is said to by opponents of Dawkins etc. Rarified theology is, I think, put forward as a red herring when attacks are made on general religion. Because of that it is a problem even by its existence.

Anonymous said...

Rarified theology is, I think, put forward as a red herring when attacks are made on general religion.

Yes, like an insect with markings on its rear end that look like a head. Sophisticated theology is not the "head" of religious belief.

March Hare said...

I tend to agree with Christopher Hitchens on this - any religion is dangerous when it is in power.

Give Jainism (Sam Harris' go-to religion when describing one without harm) the rod to beat people and it will invariably impose its religious view that all life is sacred on the rest of us, how could it not?

Any religion that is so wishy-washy that it cannot impose its own rules on the rest must be so relativist that it couldn't impose any laws at all? With no laws comes anarchy.

Just because some minor religion has been harmless, or even beneficial, doesn't mean it wouldn't become terrible should it attain the power of the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, or even now.